Each of us is the protagonist of our own life. Our aims and goals feel like the most important things in the world. However, for most of us, time feels scarce and as a result, accomplishing everything we want to can feel unattainable.
But every now and again, a moment of awe manages to challenge our understanding of the world. When experiencing awe, we feel pleasantly insignificant and connected to the whole world, a helpful antidote to feeling like the most important person in the universe.
Whether it be the birth of a child, the sunrise from the top of a mountain, or a win from a favorite sports team, experiencing awe is a very powerful source of happiness. Not surprisingly, cutting-edge research shows that the answer to a truly awesome life may be found in—that’s right—experiencing awe.
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An Unforgettable Experience With Awe
It happened just after dinner, on a cold winter’s evening in Northern Lapland: Our northern lights alarm went off. We jumped up and hurried to put on several layers of clothing in order to avoid freezing while standing outside, staring at the clear Finnish sky.
As soon as we had left the log cabin and looked up, we saw it: A beautiful green aurora borealis was hovering across the sky. It was breathtaking. We couldn’t help but stare at the ghost-like light that was slowly moving above us.
No one spoke. We stood there for hours until we could no longer feel our fingers and toes. It was a moment of awe none of us will ever forget.
To give you an idea of what it’s like to see an aurora borealis, here is a video of beautiful northern lights captured in Scotland.
What is Awe?
Awe is an emotional response to stimuli. It’s been defined as:
“The feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self, that exceeds current knowledge structures” (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
Similar to awe, “transcendence” is one of the 24 character strengths as defined in the Virtues in Action survey, known as VIA. Research has shown that building up those 24 strengths can improve well-being and lead to flourishing.
While awe is a positive emotion, it’s not one that necessarily makes us smile. But like other positive emotions, awe has a broadening effect on our thoughts and actions that helps us to build lasting resources.
What Triggers Awe?
As Keltner and Haidt (2003) outline, there are many awe-inducing stimuli. Originally experienced mostly during religious or spiritual events, feelings of awe have historically been recorded when individuals encounter contact with a higher power. People can also feel awe toward powerful individuals.
In modern times, the main triggers of awe are philosophical ones such as literature, music, paintings, and nature. Awe is typically experienced in response to stimuli like natural wonders, stunning sunrises, or events such as childbirth.
For a quick hit of awe-inspiring nature, check out the following video of Yosemite National Park in the U.S.
Two Aspects of Awe: Vastness and Accommodation
According to Keltner and Haidt (2003), the experience of awe has two essential aspects: a perceived vastness and a need for accommodation.
Vastness refers to the feeling of something perceived to be much larger than the self. Researchers have found that experiences of awe lead to feeling a diminished sense of self (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015).
Experiencing awe challenges our views of ourselves and the world around us. During an awe-inspiring moment, we may fail to understand the vastness we are experiencing. As a result, we adjust our understanding of the world and our place within it in order to make sense of an awe-inspiring event.
When experiencing awe, our mental structures expand in order to accommodate what we have just experienced. Keltner and Haidt (2003) highlight that the need for accommodation may or may not be met, which “may partially explain why awe can be both terrifying (when one fails to understand) and enlightening (when one succeeds)” (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
Benefits of Awe
Only a handful of studies have focused on awe, and it is still considered a cutting-edge topic within positive psychology (Mikulak, 2015). However, recent findings on the topic are tantalizing and promising.
Showing emotions like love or gratitude can make us vulnerable: Those emotional displays can go unreciprocated or can even be exploited. Hence, helping others may often come at an expense to oneself.
Piff et al. (2015) found that awe can increase prosocial behavior by directing our attention away from our own benefit and toward the greater good. The researchers argued that experiencing awe can result in “a shift in attention towards larger entities and diminishment of the individual self” (Piff et al., 2015).
In an analysis of data from five studies, Piff et al. concluded that individuals experiencing awe are more likely to exhibit generosity, helpfulness, and decreased entitlement (2015). Similarly, Rudd et al. (2012) found that study subjects who experienced awe were more willing to give time by volunteering than people experiencing other emotions. Hence, experiencing awe may increase the willingness to engage in altruistic behavior, which has been found to benefit the person acting altruistically.
Rudd et al. (2012) have also argued that awe has an impact on our decision-making. Research participants who experienced awe were more likely to prefer experiences over material goods. Pursuing experiences is an intrinsically motivated action, and research has shown that intrinsically motivated behavior is more likely to lead to the happiness-enhancing experience of flow.
Finally, awe has been found to have the tendency to bring people into the present moment (Shiota & Keltner, 2007). In a study consisting of three experiments with sixty-three students, Rudd et al. (2012) found that awe may increase the perception that time is plentiful and therefore reduce impatience.
The Impact of Awe on Happiness and Well-Being
The concept that certain emotions and mind states may alter how we perceive time is not new to positive psychology; it’s been seen in studies by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on the concept of flow and research on mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
This is particularly relevant because perceived time availability has been linked to life choices that affect happiness and well-being. If we perceive time to be abundant, we are more likely to eat healthily, help others in distress, and engage in leisure activities.
So, experiencing awe can increase one’s level of happiness over time and make life feel more satisfying, similar to the experience of flow (Rudd, et al., 2012). In a study by Kelther and Haidt (2003), even a small dose of awe gave participants a momentary boost in life satisfaction. This highlights the importance of cultivating awe in everyday life.
3 Suggestions to Living a Truly AWE-some Life
So how can we translate the theory of awe into making our lives more awesome? Here are three ways to feel a little more awe.
1. Walk in Nature Whenever You Can
Studies have found that the acts of directly experiencing nature, viewing nature through windows, and viewing images of nature are restorative (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan, 1995). So, if you can, use your lunch break to go for a walk through a nearby park or to watch a nature video on YouTube. (Read our article on Attention Restoration Theory for more ideas.)
If you do get the chance to go outside, be mindful while walking. Take in the air, the sounds, and the surroundings. Look out for the small things and be mesmerized by what you may find. As you mindfully examine the treasures of nature, you may experience awe.
For some more inspiration, read these instructions for how to go on an awe walk.
2. Make the Most of Every Travel Experience
It feels luxurious to sleep in while on vacation. But doing so may mean you’ll miss out on a spectacular, awe-inspiring experience: the sunrise. So next time you are in a different country, get up early enough to witness the dawn. Enjoy the feelings of transcendence and awe, and take in the beauty around you as the wildlife or city begins to rouse.
Travel, whether for fun or for business, gives plenty of opportunities to nurture the need for awe. New places offer great novelty experiences, as long as you make time to explore.Whenever you feel that you lack the time to indulge in awe-enhancing activities, remember that time is rather subjective and that experiencing awe will help you remember that.
3. Leave Your Comfort Zone Once Every Day
You do not need to go on a trip to experience awe. The feelings of wonder, amazement, and vastness can catch us anytime, anywhere. It doesn’t matter what inspires it, whether it be a star-filled sky on a clear night or snow-topped mountains on the horizon. The important thing is to be able to see the beauty in the ordinary.
This is most easily done by leaving one’s comfort zone. The effort and courage required to do so, combined with the novelty of a new situation, increases the likelihood of being mindful and aware of one’s surroundings. Simply put, watching your favorite show on television is not likely to provide an awe-inducing experience.
So, find out where your comfort zone ends and go one step further. Hike up a mountain, go for a walk at midnight, visit a museum, attend a concert or a sporting event, or climb the tallest building in your city. Would you normally avoid those activities? Great, then do them! See what happens when you push yourself.
“The comfort zone is a nice place but nothing ever grows there.”
A Take-Home Message
Awe is one of the ten positive emotions that broaden our thoughts and actions and build lasting resources that help us flourish in life. Studies show that participants who experienced awe were less impatient since they felt they had more time available and therefore were more willing to donate their time to volunteering, which is a great source of subjective happiness and well-being.
Further, experiencing awe made participants choose experiences over material goods which is another source of happiness. Experiencing awe makes us feel small and puts things into perspective. Awe can be experienced in any situation with perceptually vast stimuli.
You likely already know what it is that will give you a sense of awe and transcendence. If it takes a bit of courage, effort or overcoming you know you are on the right track. Sometimes we need to leave our comfort zone in order to truly grow.
To experience some more positive emotions, we recommend you watch Jill Shargaa‘s humorous Ted Talk on ten truly awesome things.
- Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Ann Arbor: Association for Psychological Science.
- Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity (Vol. 1): Crown Publishers.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156.
- Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framwork. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
- Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 297-314.
- Mikulak, A. (2015). All about awe. Observer, 28(4).
- Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899.
- Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological science, 23(10), 1130 –1136.
- Shiota, M. N., & Keltner, D. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition & Emotion, 21(5), 944-963.